How to Read Guitar Tabs – Foundation Tutorial
If you’re interested in learning to play an instrument but don’t have a lot of time to put into it, guitar might be for you. Picking up a new instrument can require hours of studying sheet music. Learning the notes, playing scales, and becoming familiar with the instrument. With guitar, all you have to do is become comfortable with the instrument and begins with learning how to read guitar tabs. This article is going to teach you how to read them.
This article is broken down into sections, so you can skim through and see which sections apply to you, but if you are a first-time musician you should read the whole article, even if you do not think it applies. It will be helpful later on.
Frets: Frets are the metal strips that go vertically along the neck of the guitar. The one farthest to your left (if you are right handed) is the first fret. The one to the right of that one is the second, and so on and so forth.
Fingers: Each of your fingers is assigned a number when playing guitar. Your first finger is your index finger, second finger is your middle finger, third finger is your ring finger, and fourth finger is your pinky finger. (It is very important to pay attention to these numbers if you have any experience playing piano because they are different.)
Guitar tabs show six horizontal lines, each representing a different string on your guitar. The top line is the thinnest string (high E) and the bottom is the thickest string (low E). The numbers on the lines show you where to put your fingers. Numbers on the lines match up with frets on the fret board.
Numbers greater than 0 tell you which strings to hold down on the fret board. “1” is the fret closest to the stock (which is the head of the guitar where the strings are wound around the pegs), and as the numbers increase your fingers will move fret-by-fret towards the guitar’s body. If the number is 0 that means you will pluck the string without fretting any notes.
If there is a “2” on the bottom line it means to fret (hold your finger down on) the second fret of the lowest string and play that note.
Most guitars have 19 frets so there can be any number from 0-19 listed in guitar tabs.
Similar to acoustic guitar tabs, bass guitar tabs show the strings of the bass horizontally. Most tab for bass is written for 4-string bass, but there is tab available for 5-string and 6-string basses as well.
The top line of the tab is the thinnest string (G) and the bottom line is the thickest (E).
Notes are indicated by fret number. The fret number is written on the string on which it is played, just like for acoustic guitar. There are between 20 and 24 frets on a bass guitar. So it is possible you will see numbers on the tabs going from 0-24.
For a classical guitarist, it is generally better to learn to read sheet music than to read tabs. Tabs are more for pop, country, or rock genres; most classical pieces will not have music written out in tabs. If you would like to use tabs to play classical guitar, you can follow the same instructions listed for the acoustic guitar.
Oftentimes when reading tabs you’ll see a few numbers that are stacked up on top of each other. These are chords. If you come across a chord, fret every note as written and then strum all the notes at the same time.
A lot of songs have guitar parts that consist mainly of chords. Sometimes instead of having the tabs written out the chords will be written in standard chord notation (Emin - E Minor, C7 – Dominant 7, etc.). In order to be able to play music with the chord names listed, you will need to learn what notes each chord is made up of. (There is a pattern to the notes that are played in a chord, so once you learn the pattern you will be able to figure out most chords.) All you have to do when given a list of chords is play them in the order that they are written. Generally, you will have to play one chord per measure, but you’ll have to listen to the song to pick up the pattern of the strumming.
If the music you are looking at has lyrics on it, the lyrics will be your guide as to when you play the chord. If you were playing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and the chord C was written above “Mary,” that means you should strum the guitar on “Mary.”
Here is an example of chords listed on lyrics for a song.
When reading tabs, it is important to remember that everything is written and is meant to be read from left to right. Start with the notes on the left then move toward the right – don’t start at the top and go to the bottom, or start at the bottom and go to the top.
Most tabs do not show you the rhythm of the piece. Sometimes the tabs will be broken down into measures (the beginning of a measure is represented by a vertical line). But they will not tell you the exact rhythm of the notes within the measures. The best way to figure out the rhythm is to listen to the song while you read the tab and figure out the basic rhythm on your own.
If you have an advanced tab it might count the beat for you. But it is done using rhythmic terms used in sheet music. Each marking is matched up with its note vertically.
If you know rhythmic terms, here is a list of letters and symbols that represent each term:
- w – whole note (generally 4 beats)
- h – half note (generally 2 beats)
- q – quarter note (generally 1 beat)
- e – eighth note (generally ½ beat)
- s – sixteenth note (generally ¼ beat)
- & - marking that indicates the note will be played on the “and” of the beat (1 and 2 and, etc.)
- Dotted Notes are represented with a letter and then a dot, ie., q. – dotted quarter note (a dot means you add half the note value to the note you are playing – in this case the note would be held for a beat and a half)
A lot of the time tabs include more information than just what notes to play on which strings. Tabs use many different specific symbols that tell you how to play each note. The symbols generally apply to technique that is meant to make the song sound as much like the recording as possible.
An “h” placed in between two notes (ie., 5h7) means to conduct a hammer on. In this case you would play the first note normally and then use a finger on your fretting hand and tap down on the second note (you would not use your strumming hand to pluck the note). Sometimes “^” will be used instead of an “h” (ie., 5^2)
A “p” placed in between two notes (ie., 5p2) means to conduct a pull off. A pull of is the reverse of a hammer on – pluck the first note; at the same time, use a different finger to fret the other note. Rapidly, lift the finger fretting the first note. You will then hear the second note. Again, sometimes “^” is used to represent a pull off. (5^2) Pull offs will always have the first note followed by a lower note; hammer ons will always have the second note higher.
A “b” placed in between two notes (ie., 6b8), indicates you should play a bend - fret the first note and bend the note up to the pitch of the second note. Instead of a “b” the number might be in parenthesis. If there is an “r” listed after the “b” (6b8r6), it means the bent note should be released before playing the next note.
To slide a note, you strike a string and then move your fret-hand finger up or down on a string without releasing it from the fretboard then strike a different note. A slide going up is marked as “/” and a slide going down is marked by a “.” (ie., 6/86)
A lowercase “s” means to conduct a legato slide, which means you do not strike the second note with your pick. Only strike the first note and then let the second note play from the movement in your fret hand.
An uppercase “S” signifies a shift slide, which means you would strike the second note without striking the first note of the slide.
An “x” or a dot below the number means you suppose to mute the string. Place your fretting-hand fingers across the strings indicated so when you strike the strings, the sound that results is a duller sound. If there is more than one “x” in a row, that means to mute multiple strings at once.
Downstrokes and Upstrokes
A down stroke means you strum the guitar moving your strumming hand from the top of the strings to the bottom, and an upstroke means you strum the guitar moving your strumming hand from the bottom of the strings to the top. Down strokes are indicated by a symbol that looks like a squared-off upside-down “U.” Upstrokes are indicated with a downward facing arrow. Some pieces of music will have these symbols, and some won’t – it’s up to the composer to decide whether he/she wants you to play a specific way or have you play it more freestyle.
GREAT BOOKS FOR BEGINNERS ON AMAZON:
First 50 Songs You Should Play on Acoustic Guitar
First 50 Songs You Should Play on Acoustic Guitar by Hal Leonard corp. is a beginner’s book of tabs with recognizable songs such as “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” “Yesterday,” “Free Fallin’,” “Hey There, Delilah,” and “Stairway to Heaven.” This is a great book if you are first learning to play guitar & how to read guitar tabs – the songs are easy to follow, recognizable, written with simple chords, and do not include more advanced techniques (strumming patterns, etc.).
First 50 Songs You Should Play on Bass
First 50 Songs You Should Play on Bass by Hal Leonard corp. is a beginner’s book for bass players. This book consists of tabs of recognizable songs such as “Billie Jean,” “Livin’ on a Prayer,” “My Generation,” “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “Uptown Funk,” and “I Got You (I Feel Good).” This is a great book if you are first learning to play bass guitar – the tabs have been written simply, the songs are easy to follow. No advance techniques includes in this book. And the songs are all bass-heavy so they are recognizable even though you are just playing the bass.
Selections from Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time: Guitar Classics Volume 2
Classic Rock to Modern Rock by Alfred music is a great book for those looking to really rock and roll! The songs are all rock hits and are a blast to play. This book is a little more advanced than the First 50 books. But once you start reading tabs you’ll find it gets easier. And you might be able to move to a more advanced book like this quickly.
Start With Confidence
Now you're ready to start playing the guitar! The most important thing when learning guitar tabs is to not overthink it. Just take it note by note until you accustomed to reading them. Learning tabs is a great way to become a master guitar player in no time – no formal musical training needed! Good luck with your playing, and remember to rock on!